It was my first rehearsal with the adult choir at the church I grew up in in Upper Sandusky, Ohio: I was beyond nervous. I was by no means talented enough to be there. I didn't have the experience of singing big kid music. I was in the junior choir for a few years, but then my mother suggested I start taking voice lessons from Mrs. Rinderknecht, the same teacher I had for piano several years before. And in due time Mrs. Rinderknecht, who was also the choir director at the church, had the audacity to say I should move up with those obviously more talented singers.
But it wasn't just that: you see the junior choir practiced downstairs in the fellowship hall, where it was much more relaxed, didn't feel as much pressure to sing perfectly. The adult choir, on the other hand, rehearsed in the sanctuary: in the area right in front of the altar. I'm sure Mrs. Rinderknecht never intended it, but for me at that age it felt intimidating, almost as if God was keeping a closer eye on me. And then, in due time, as we would look out into the pews while going through the anthem for the upcoming Sunday, I noticed something I had never seen before.
Through all the years at St. Paul's there was this massive cross above the balcony with Jesus hanging there. Now I could have sworn I heard that Lutherans never had such crosses. Jesus was never meant to be displayed like that. That was a Roman Catholic thing, and we never do anything like the Catholics. And supposedly the reasons they came up with to justify no crucifix, as it's called, was it was too gory for one, and second because Jesus is no longer on the cross: He is alive, risen from the dead. But nevertheless in a Lutheran church, filled with plenty of people who tried to avoid anything that smells of Catholic, there was that massive cross with Jesus' arms extended, nails piercing, eyes shut; hanging over the sanctuary.
So rehearsal after rehearsal I would catch myself staring at that cross: maybe because it almost felt illegal in that Lutheran church, maybe because it brought the Good News to life for me, maybe because it made me realize how much my Lord went through on Calvary. Soon enough it made me sing the choral anthems with a little more meaning, not simply singing the notes one by one with the words thrown in, but actually thinking about what the song meant. In retrospect that cross made me appreciate worship more. It made me realize God was actually a lot closer to me than I ever thought possible, a little bit of humanity to the Almighty.
Now the Gospel reading this morning can sound incredibly intimidating, filling us with so much guilt. "Pick up the same cross as Jesus or face the consequences." "Prepare yourself for the same pain and anguish...or else." And yet I wonder if it's supposed to be read as a fight song of sorts with as much enthusiasm as thousands of fans on a football Friday night, uniting people from all walks of life for a common cause. It is a cross of joy, of victory; not guilt or shame; not look at what I've done for you, not a symbol to incite depression. We can deny ourselves because Christ already has us taken care of for eternity. How can we not pick up a cross and follow the victory march to everlasting life?
Here at St. John's we too have a cross over our balcony, but this one's different. It's a cross with light beaming from it. Maybe that's the best way to think about the most powerful symbol of our faith. It unleashes an unquenchable light in our soul, it soars through God's church that isn't quite the same as used it to be, and a cross that continues to scatter the darkness all over the world, no matter how evil it seems.
But most importantly it is the perfect cross to see after tasting the sacrifice of our Lord in Holy Communion. After consuming the bread and wine, the body and blood of our Savior, we walk away and see the light that beams from the very cross that made it all possible. Our walk back from the altar rail is our victory march out into the world with a light that cannot be contained within ourselves. It must be shared. It must be proclaimed from the mountaintop!
We pick up a cross of our own sin, guilt, shame, past stories we don't want anyone else to know, our indifference of the world; we bear it all and follow our Lord out of this place into our communities. We follow Him because through Him the cross is removed with His grace, the sin is conquered through His love, death is triumphed by His passion. We survey a most wondrous cross. It heals. It empowers. It saves. It resurrects. The cross sets us free forevermore. And so for His most awe-inspiring act that can never be taken away from any of us, we give thanks to God indeed. Amen.
St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
Guest pastors will lead us in worship during St. John's pastoral vacancy
Office: Mon - Thu: 9 a.m. - Noon